From the very first, there were cabals that chose which children would be taken and sacrificed, and harvested their blood for use in secret rituals. The clandestine gathering, the child’s blood misused: These are constants across centuries.
In the case of William of Norwich—a young boy found dead in a wood in England, in the year 1144—his premature demise was transformed, ex post facto, into a ritual supposedly performed by Jews explicitly to mock the Passion of the Christ. In this lurid account of ritual desecration, the Jews scourged the boy, anointed him with thorns, lanced him in the side as Christ had been lanced, and staunched the flow of blood with boiling water. All this was meant to consecrate the celebration of Passover. William’s hagiographer, the monk Thomas of Monmouth, laid out this unsubstantiated account in excruciating detail, leading to the canonization of the dead boy. Like mushrooms after rain, accounts of miracles arose around his tomb.
But even in that same account, authored in 1173, the monk was not content to limit the image of depravity to the Jews of a single city in eastern England. Instead, drawing on a secondhand source—a monk named Theobald who supposedly converted from Judaism after hearing of the miracles of St. William of Norwich—Monmouth depicted a grimmer, larger scheme. “He verily told us that in the ancient writings of his fathers it was written that the Jews, without the shedding of human blood, could neither obtain their freedom, nor could they ever return to their fatherland,” Monmouth wrote. “Hence it was laid down by them in ancient times that every year they must sacrifice a Christian in some part of the world to the Most High God in scorn and contempt of Christ, that so they might avenge their sufferings on Him.”
A secret cabal of rabbis gathered yearly in Narbonne, Monmouth said, presided over by the King of the Jews, and cast lots representing each country and city where Jews lived. Each year, the emerging lore had it, a child from one of those places was chosen to be sacrificed.
Over the centuries, the accusation of ritual murder became more baroque and more codified. By 1235, in France, the desecration of Christian Easter that formed the backbone of these putative Passover celebrations had expanded to include consumption of the blood of children. This was “in accordance with a Jewish custom to celebrate communion on Easter Sunday with the blood of Christian children,” writes the historian Joshua Trachtenberg in his seminal 1943 study, The Devil and the Jews. If sacramental wine became the blood of Christian children, an evil kind of transubstantiation occurred. Eventually the theory evolved to include the idea that Jews mixed Christian blood in their Passover bread.
That Jews were inveterate consumers of blood in addition to insatiable defilers of Christ became a commonplace bit of knowledge across Western Europe. For a millennium, the blood libel has flourished and, with it, accompanying tortures and murders of Jews in orgies of violence. Vengeful Christians took possession of Jewish property and lands, acquiring their wealth and driving them from hearth and shire. The idea of the cabal persisted above all: the Jews of England taking part in these ritual mutilations of children’s bodies, the secret meeting of rabbis, a shadowy group of elders. The blood was distributed among Jews; it was eaten in bread; it was drunk in a demonic inversion of the sacrament. The children—found in wells, in fields—were victims and, post mortem, were given the crown of sainthood, as the Jews were given the stain of devilry.
Just shy of 900 years since the death of William of Norwich, there is a new cabal. There are more blood-drinkers. There are new demons, still out for the same purpose: to defile Christ and steal hope and do all that demons do, which are the most evil things you can imagine.
Sociologists and journalists have struggled to precisely categorize the shambolic conspiracy theory known as QAnon. Is it a political movement? A new religion? A cult? It has elements of all these things. There is a basic set of beliefs: namely that President Trump is waging a holy war within the government against a secret cabal of pedophiles, whose members included top Democrats like Hillary Clinton and her advisers. There are accompanying behaviors and rituals: the serial viewing of YouTube videos that embed the watcher deeper into the world of QAnon; the frantic decoding of “Q drops,” or tersely worded message-board posts, which now number more than 4,000. There is a prophet, Q, and a God-like figure, Trump. Its central slogan offers the impression of a crusade, a long march: “Where we go one, we go all.”
But historians offer another thesis for the purpose QAnon serves. The “nocturnal ritual fantasy”—a term coined by the historian Norman Cohn in his landmark study of European witch trials, Europe’s Inner Demons—is a recurring trope in Western history. And it is often a politically useful one. Deployed by the Romans against early Christians, by Christians against Jews, by Christians against witches, by Catholics against “heretics,” it is a malleable set of accusations that posit that a social out-group is engaged in perverse, ritualistic behaviors that target innocents—and that the out-group and all its enablers must be crushed.
QAnon began in October 2017, in the fetid corners of the anonymous online message board 4chan. It consisted, at first, of cryptic messages by a mysterious individual who purported to have “Q-level” clearance—a designation by the Department of Energy that enables its holder to access top-secret information.
Over the past three years, Q has migrated to 8kun—an even shadier anonymous site—and the conspiracy has grown vast and jungly. Outside the core tenets of Q—Trump as godly warrior of the people, an elite cabal of Democrats abusing children—there is now a range of conspiratorial beliefs, from the existence of a lizard Illuminati to a government cover-up of alien landings.
QAnon contains significant elements of antisemitism (Q has fixated on the Rothschilds and George Soros as crucial sponsors and members of the cabal) and a furious racism (Q adherents blame wildfires on the Black Lives Matter movement and postulate that Black activists confer with demons). The fixation on Soros—an echo of mainstream Republican claims that the Hungarian Jew is the potential orchestrator of a “coup” and a perennial funder of political opposition—is particularly hysterical and violent. Q himself has referenced Soros several times as the financial font funding “domestic terrorism.”
Q adherents are perfervid Trump supporters by necessity, as Trump’s valiant battle against ultimate evil forms the spine from which the many limbs of the conspiracy grow. But a recent wave of émigrés into the Q landscape consists of New Age moms and influencers with previously vaguer politics, whose interests, during the strained days of the Covid-19 pandemic, have migrated from crystals and wellness to taking down a world-straddling cabal of demonic pedophiles. Anti-vaccination beliefs and consequent conspiracy theories about a hypothetical Covid-19 vaccine provided a gateway to QAnon in many of these cases: The twin conspiracies have merged, seamlessly, into the broad, sprawling whole.
The Q umbrella is broad enough to shelter all of these tangents and more. Its power comes from its very vagueness, the sense that any secret knowledge, any willingness to “research the truth” (“research” being the commonest euphemism for trawling the conspiracy swamps of the internet), is enough for entry into a club of those who know the truth.
Digging through QAnon books on Amazon, of which there are an enormous quantity, I found a book called Q Anon and the Dark Agenda: The Illuminati Protocols Exposed. There was a 35-book series entitled Pedophilia & Empire: Satan, Sodomy and the Deep State, one volume of which expounded with total credence on the Jewish blood libel accusations, with chapter subheadings like “Talmudic Heresy Traditions Converge With Freemasonry to Deliver Luciferian Bloodlust of Pedophile Sex Rings.” The book also puts forward the belief that both “intelligent alien beings” and “demonic supernatural forces … thrive on the blood of defenseless children.”
Customers who bought this item also bought: Questions Answered: An Introduction to QAnon and the Great Awakening; QAnon and the Battle of Armageddon: Destroying the New World Order and Taking the Millennial Kingdom by Force; QAnon/The Storm: a 120 Year Timeline. And so on, the algorithm offering infinite points of entry for the curious, the lonely, those who feel fooled or angry. Transformation into a true believer in QAnon, or taking the “Q pill,” is often rapid—a few weeks, a few months—and complete. Loved ones of Q supporters describe being iced out by their own parents, siblings, and friends, accused of being “pedophiles.”
Pedophiles are everywhere, for QAnon adherents: in the highest echelons of government and business, in Hollywood, ensconced in foster care homes and gas station parking lots. The number of children kidnapped and abused by the cabal, in the statistics that cram the rococo graphics passed around on social media, typically measure in the hundreds of thousands per annum, orders of magnitude higher than law enforcement statistics bear out.
And the child abduction isn’t just for sexual purposes. In an echo of the blood libel, one frequently cited theory among the QAnon community holds that global elites feel the need to procure so many children in order to harvest their blood. The children are sources of adrenochrome—a chemical sometimes used to prevent blood clotting, and readily available for purchase online. QAnon adherents posit that adrenochrome has potent hallucinatory effects (it doesn’t) or is used by elites to ensure their immortality. Moreover, adrenochrome is harvested from “tortured children,” in the words of one QAnon sage, in blood-drinking rituals dedicated to Satan.
One widespread online rumor held that Anthony Weiner had a secret video on his laptop of a Satanic ritual showing Hillary Clinton mutilating a girl with the aid of Huma Abedin, drinking the girl’s blood while wearing masks made of the skin of her face. In the QAnon imagination, Democrats and celebrities commingle in orgies of bloodlust, while demons of the figurative and literal variety cavort their way to supreme intoxication.
The idea of a cabal engaged in ritual is an important one to QAnon adherents, according to Julian Feeld, a co-host of the “QAnon Anonymous” podcast and a careful observer of the phenomenon. “Adrenochrome extraction and child trafficking, cannibalism and pedophilia are all part of an ancient cult, in their eyes, of elites consuming this blood for long life,” he told me. “Ritual is central to their beliefs.” Feeld described attending a QAnon rally in which one speaker postulated that Hollywood Boulevard, as a whole, serves as an “adrenochrome shrine” and that the red carpet rolled out at industry events symbolized the blood of sacrificed children.
All of this has precedent in the nocturnal ritual fantasy. “The basic idea is that a persistent delusion exists in European cultures that shadowy, conspiratorial groups gather together in secret to plot the overthrow of society,” Dr. Michael Barbezat, a Medieval historian and research fellow at Australian Catholic University, told me. “As part of their plotting, the conspirators supposedly ritually abuse, murder, and consume innocent children.”
The nocturnal ritual fantasy becomes dangerous when it is adopted by those with political power. “Historically, violent persecutions happen when accounts of satanic child abuse cults get taken up by political leaders,” Barbezat told me. “Things happen when those with power become interested in the kinds of ideas these marginal thinkers are promoting, or weaponize them. Often leaders have ulterior motives in their interest in these ideas.”
The burning of witches and Jews and heretics may feel long past; the stakes pulled up, the bones long crumbled into ash. But as the language of the mainstream right continually ramps up into existential territory—with Fox News hosts braying that a Joe Biden win in November will quite literally mean Trump supporters will be murdered in their beds; a top Health and Human Services aide claiming that government scientists are engaging in “sedition”; and Republican operative Charlie Kirk saying “If the president loses, they will come for us all. They will come for your children”—it’s difficult to overlook the utility of a movement that already casts the world in blood-stained Manichaean terms.
The question that underlies the nocturnal ritual fantasy is, Cui bono? And in the case of QAnon, which depicts the Republican president as a God-emperor locked in perpetual battle against unimaginable evils, the answer is simple. It is easier to imagine violent predation by political opponents—and perhaps unleash vengeance against them—when you already believe they consort with demons and drink the blood of children for amusement. All that remains is for the GOP to issue its orders for the banked embers to burst into flame.
For now, QAnon remains in a curious position with regard to the formal party apparatus of the GOP. While QAnon adherents have been warmly lauded by the president—“I’ve heard that these are people who love our country,” he said—other elected Republicans have proceeded with more caution. The past few years have proved that there is an enormous amount the Republican Party is willing to absorb; cryptic clocks, coded messages, and the sating of Democratic appetites on child-flesh seem as yet just out of the bounds of propriety.
Nonetheless, the increasing popularity of the theory among the Republican base—which has exploded following the mixed and often conspiratorial messages proffered by the party during the Covid-19 pandemic—has meant that QAnon is no longer relegated to the fringes. The researcher Alex Kaplan, at Media Matters for America, has kept track of no less than 81 candidates for Congress in the 2020 cycle who have “endorsed or given credence to the conspiracy theory or promoted QAnon content.” Twenty-four of those candidates have made it to the November ballot, by winning their primaries or fulfilling other requirements. (Kaplan has identified an additional 21 current or former candidates for state legislatures affiliated with QAnon.) A number seem poised to win their contests, ensuring a QAnon-believer presence amid the ranks of the political elite next year. One wonders how closely they will monitor their colleagues’ veins for signs that they are pulsing with adrenochrome, extracted from the pituitary glands of tortured children, and how such discoveries will affect bonhomie in the cloakroom.
While the halls of power might soon hum with the most florid of conspiracies, the true power of QAnon is in the massive and growing scale of its zealous constituency—along with those who might sympathize; or fellow-travel; or simply find, in the warm embrace of fellow conspiracists, a substitute for some of the fellowship and community stripped from our lives during a world-historical pandemic. Against the broader backdrop of the movement’s mass appeal, QAnon’s truly terrifying potential is still untapped—namely, what its followers might be induced to do, or do on their own, in order to act against the ultimate and shocking evil they are perennially discovering and rediscovering. “I think of it as a civilization eating its own vomit,” Barbezat told me. “These kinds of accusations make excellent weapons for those trying to remake the world.”
The power of the nocturnal ritual fantasy lies in who it is used against, even as it recurs across centuries and oceans, its tropes recovered and remixed and regurgitated. Children and demons, blood and bones, saints and martyrs, Satan laughing, coins flowing to pay for despoiled innocence—all have come before and will come again.
In March 1985, a group of parents brought a backhoe to the grounds of the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. Two years earlier, a parent at the preschool had begun leveling accusations of sexual abuse at the preschool’s staff, particularly its sole male employee, Ray Buckey. During the ensuing investigation—which grew ever-larger, resulting in the interviews of more than 400 children and the involvement of multiple law enforcement agencies—the stories of abuse had grown more flamboyant and bizarre. From initial claims of fondling and penetration of the preschoolers by Buckey, the accusations mushroomed to accommodate all seven members of the preschool’s staff, engaged in orgiastic activities with their students.
Then Satan entered the picture. There were accusations of flying, of goat-men, of animal sacrifice and blood-drinking. Preschoolers were subjected to repeated interviews of dubious and coercive methodology, while adult prosecutors and psychologists eagerly encouraged them to come up with more and more accusations. They found themselves confronted with stories of decapitated infants, of preschool teachers dressed as witches. Among the most enduring myths of the McMartin preschool case—which captivated the nation as part of a broader moral panic about sexual abuse in preschools and day care centers—was the existence of tunnels beneath the school, in which molestation and ritual abuse had taken place. Hence the backhoe.
Nothing of consequence was found in the dig. Parents abandoned the backhoe and set to the earth with shovels. Fifty parents wound up pitching in. Eventually, someone found a turtle shell, buried deep in the earth. Was it just a dead turtle, or a confirmation of one set of accusations—that the teachers had ritually slaughtered animals in front of the children, part of their pact with demonic forces? Although no tunnels were found, their existence became legend—part of a widespread belief that the Satanic ritual abuse of children was epidemic in the United States throughout the 1980s.
“One thing I noticed about the day care panic was very strange magical thinking among people who seemed like normal working people,” Debbie Nathan, one of the most clear-eyed contemporaneous reporters of the panic in the 1980s, told me. The book she co-authored with lawyer Michael Snedeker in 1995, Satan’s Silence, offered a searingly skeptical view, even as ritual abuse cases continued to unfold around the nation. Nathan recounted an experience in which a father with a child at McMartin resolutely denied alibi evidence for Ray Buckey. The man had told Nathan, “He could have been in two places at once because he is a Satanist, and Satanists have that ability.”
The day care panic was driven by a transpartisan spectrum of individuals: overzealous prosecutors seeking to advance their careers by appearing tough on crime against children; feminists and victims’ rights advocates who seemed, finally, to have reached a moment in which child abuse was taken seriously; and the Christian right, eager to see Satan’s work in public childcare that enabled women to work outside the home.
People did hard time. Two sets of parents from Kern County, California—a day care provider and her husband, and friends they had put forth as character witnesses—served 12 years in prison on the basis of outlandish child abuse accusations that later proved totally groundless. The McMartin preschool trial lasted seven years and, at the time, was the most costly in California history. Meanwhile, 43 adults in Wenatchee, Washington, were arrested on suspicion of being part of a massive pedophilia ring; all the charges were eventually dismissed, after years of imprisonment and costly trials. Others indicted during the sex abuse panic remain in prison.
The moral panic spread over the entire fabric of society. Nathan recalled being castigated as “anti-feminist” for her doubts. The moral panic was ultimately overseen by the state: Prosecutors across the country filed charges stemming from it, with future Attorney General Janet Reno playing a large role in a number of Florida prosecutions. It was gospel belief in the media and among ordinary citizens that rings of sex abusers were everywhere. Satan and his blood-drinking minions were peripheral players, but the panic is usually referred to now, through the mocking lens of self-assurance, as the “Satanic Panic.” We in the twenty-first century could never be so naïve.
Still, 61 percent of the American populace, according to a 2016 Gallup poll, believe in the Devil. On Facebook, posts about human trafficking—the locus of a broader, socially acceptable moral panic, one that feeds steadily into QAnon’s darker intimations—get shared widely, with no vetting of their improbable statistics. One popular figure posits that 916 children go missing per hour in the United States, a total of eight million per year—or 10 percent of the entire child population of the U.S.
And there are tunnels in 2020, too. In June, a viral claim that New York’s Central Park was host to some 35,000 malnourished, caged children kept in underground tunnels spread over Facebook. The source of the claim was a man named Timothy Holmseth, who purports to be affiliated with the nonexistent “Pentagon Pedophile Task Force.” Holmseth claims to be an integral part of the Trump administration. “There is ONE MAN between Timothy Holmseth and President Trump,” reads Holmseth’s bio on his website.
“Traumatized children, some of whom have never seen the light of day, pregnant preteens, deformed babies, piles of little corpses whose bodies were apparently used for organ harvesting, children locked in cages, electro-shocked and traumatized in order to harvest their blood—Adrenochrome for the elites to drink—were being carried out of the tunnels by Marines,” went one anonymous summary of Holmseth’s videos on the website BeforeItsNews.com.
All over social media, QAnon followers prayed for the mole children. They wrote them poetry. They were convinced the mole children were being treated in Central Park’s coronavirus field hospital, or spirited away to the military hospital ship the USNS Comfort. No one with authority would admit they had known about the mole children, but the QAnon followers knew. The mole children had been rescued by the forces of good. The fight was ongoing, and they were part of it.
“Moral panics are cyclical,” Nathan told me.
This week, I went on a walk in Central Park. In the North Woods there are meandering paths, weathered stone stairs and countless, winding pathways through the dense foliage. I saw asters and lazy susans, pokeberries and chipmunks and black squirrels. I saw an archway brimming with freshwater and overhung with ivy. I didn’t see the tunnels where the elite were stashing kids, no splashes of blood or adrenochrome. Earlier that day, I’d been sent a long screed on Twitter by a stranger about the basic truths of QAnon.
“Q seems to be correct: There is a plan in place to defend America and defeat domestic enemies using the military and the Insurrection Act,” the stranger wrote. We had never interacted. “In fact, when Trump unleashes the military to take down America’s domestic enemies, as I have stated over and over again over the past two years, you will beg for this action, and you will support it because this is the only way to defeat the enemies of America and save this nation.” I could expect “thousands of left-wing pedophiles and child traffickers” to be arrested; the “left-wing media” would protest until they, too, were arrested and charged with treason. It would begin the day after the election. The cover story would be the distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine.
I breathed through my mask, looking up at leaves just starting to brown after the long summer. There was a chill in the air, an eerie whiteness to the sky. Everyone I passed was masked, and I was grateful: There’s a plague on. There are fires. Everyone I know is struggling for lack of money, and no aid is coming. Everyone is shadowed by uncertainty and fear. I thought: Wouldn’t it be easier to believe in the tunnels? To believe someone is coming to make things better, some righteous, godlike force? You could then rest assured that nothing is complex except the cover-ups of evil, that evil is simple, that it can be defeated. That everything is leading up to one glorious and cathartic rout. That the nocturnal ritual fantasy is no fantasy, that every phantasm is a sign. It would be easier to think this way, to think I was perpetually at the verge of putting together the puzzle. Everything was pale and confused to me; to them, all was clear and bright as blood. There were enemies, so many enemies, blood-drinkers from the dawn of time, but they would be defeated soon and executed for treason. There was a plan to trust in. A path to take, fixed, determined.
I walked home by no particular route at all.